June this year will mark the 30th Anniversary of the release of “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”, but is it a landmark worth celebrating? It was always going to be a tricky prospect, creating a follow up to the critically and commercially successful “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”. After all, when you’ve hit your peak, reached the pinnacle, where else is there to go? Judging by sequels these days, the tendency would be to up the ante, go bigger, go darker and try to outdo the previous film in every conceivable way but returning producer and debut director (and literally returning star) Leonard Nimoy decided to go in a different direction…
Following the devastating Battle of the Mutara Nebula and the detonation of the Genesis device, the USS Enterprise limps home to Earth only to learn that the crew is to be broken up, the ship decommissioned and nobody is allowed to return to the Genesis planet. But when Kirk discovers that Spock shared his consciousness with Doctor McCoy before he died, he vows to return Spock’s body to Vulcan by any means necessary. Meanwhile, a rogue Kilngon Commander seeks to control Genesis for himself and only Kirk’s son and Lieutenant Saavik stand in his way.
It’s an inescapable fact that “Star Trek III” feels smaller than its predecessor, and the death of Spock – freshly replayed in a ‘previously on Star Trek’ montage – overshadows the early part of the film. It’s a brave decision, and certainly a rarity in 1980’s genre films for significant events in a previous film to be acknowledged let alone have consequences which spill over so markedly into the following tale. On the one hand, it does make “The Search For Spock” feel like a seamless continuation of “The Wrath Of Khan” but the downside is it makes it very difficult for the film to establish a dinstinct identity of its own. As a result, despite some excellent set pieces and a couple of key moments I’ll touch on later, it’s an introspective film which ends up feeling like a ‘seat filler’ between the operatic gradeur of “Star Trek II” and the high-spirited jolliness of “Star Trek IV”. On the rare occasions “The Empire Strikes Back”, the patron saint of superior sequels, receives criticism it’s generally because it’s perceived to defy the orthodox story structure of a beginning, a middle and an end by having a middle, a middle and a middle. That’s doubly true of “The Search For Spock”, a story which exists almost solely to pick up plot threads and move them along without resolving anything except undoing the crowning glory of “The Wrath of Khan”. Certainly that’s how Nicholas Meyer felt, as he declined the offer to write and direct it because disagreed with the decision to resurrect Spock.
The early scenes on the bruised Enterprise are heavy with melancholy as the crew come to terms with their losses and we get the first sense of what Spock’s mindmeld with Doctor McCoy actually did. The patched up and scarred starship looks great and there’s a lovely moment as Lieutenant Rand (Grace Lee Whitney popping up for her Stan Lee-style cameo) reacts to the state of the ship as it arrives in Spacedock. Yes, Spacedock. After two near-disasters where the Enterprise was apparently the only ship available to intervene, the gold-pressed latinum has finally dropped for Starfleet and they’ve not only built a shiny new Spacedock in orbit of Earth but have actually made sure there’s more than one starship in the neighbourhood, notably the cutting edge new USS Excelsior. This is the first film where we really start to get a feel for the size and scale of Starfleet with a variety of ships and missions as the earnest but authorotative Admiral Morrow (Robert Hooks) explains to Kirk why he cannot return to Genesis. Meanwhile, on Genesis, we get to see another starship: the USS Grissom, commanded by Captain Esteban (Phillip R. Allen). Unfortunately for Captain Esteban and the Grissom, they’re quickly destroyed by Klingon Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) and his crew who are intent on acquire the secret of Genesis, leaving David, Saavik and a ‘mysterious’ young Vulcan boy trapped on the planet’s surface.
Thanks to its small scale, the film has an intimate feel to it and allows the regulars more time in the spotlight. There are no major new characters introduced in this installment so there’s room for the existing cast to breathe. The scenes of them making various attempts to get back to Genesis are amusing and well played, with DeForest Kelley particularly good in his dual role as McCoy and Spock. We also get an all-too-rare glimpse of our heroes’ fashion sense as most of the crew spend the movie in their civvies although I’m betting the 23rd Century version of Joan Rivers had some pointed things to say about Chekov’s salmon pink Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit.
Although it takes its time, the whole film really kicks into gear once Kirk and his crew steal the Enterprise. It’s a lovely little sequence that plays out a little bit like “Star Trek” does “Ocean’s 11” and Uhura finally gets more to do than act as a switchboard, dealing with an eager young Starfleet officer ‘Mr Adventure’ (Scott McGinnis). The automated Enterprise is a clever conceit to repeat the traditional Trek McGuffin of having the power of the ship limited or compromised somehow while still making it different enough to be credible. The special effects work on the shots of the Enterprise swooping around the Spacedock pursued by the Excelsior are gorgeously rendered, proving again that models have the edge over totally CGI creations.
Of course, despite its modest ambitions and small scale, “The Search For Spock” still has two iconic and shocking moments up its sleeve. With brutal efficiency, it does what “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull” should have done and swiftly does away with its hero’s son, delivering yet another emotional gut punch to Kirk and providing important motivation for the character to get through the events still to come. It’s interesting to note, though, how easily Kirk shrugs off the death of his son. Spock’s death took a whole movie to deal with and still gets reference in “Star Trek IV” and beyond whereas David’s death gets mentioned once more and then is never referred to again. But the real gem of “Star Trek III” – its money shot – is the self-destruct sequence which finally brings the venerable starship Enterprise to its end. Not only is the actual setting of the self-destruct mechanism a lovely call-back to the original series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” but the effects are great. There’s a real emotional heft to seeing the beloved ship crumble, shatter and then plummet into the atmosphere, ending its days in a fiery trail across the sky.
The cast play this moment particularly well and again, Shatner is at the top of his game when it matters most: the death of David and the destruction of the Enterprise. We do get a new Saavik after Kirstie Alley also declined to reprise the role when her demand for a higher salary than DeForest Kelley was rejected. Fortunately, Robin Curtis takes on the role and absolutely nails the character of Saavik in a way Alley didn’t. Also boosting the Vulcan contingent are Mark Lenard, reprising his role as Sarek, Spock’s father, from the original series for the first time and theatrical grandee Dame Judith Anderson as the Vulcan High Priestess. James Sikking brings a wonderfully pompous swagger to Excelsior commander Captain Styles and if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see that his first officer is none other than futue-OCP sleazeball executive Miguel Ferrer. Character actor Alan Miller injects a healthy dose of humour as a colourful alien smuggler with a Yoda-esque approach to syntax offering his services to McCoy. Christopher Lloyd’s turn as Kruge is a little pantomimey though, undercutting any sense of menace and the Klingons in this film come across as simply not fearsome or threatening enough to feel like a credible threat to Kirk, especially after Ricardo Montalban’s towering performance as Khan. If he’d skewed closer to his portrayal of Judge Doom in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” he might have become a more memorable foe but as it stands, he’s a bit bland. Fun Fact: Kruge’s sidekick Maltz is played by John Larroquette, who would return to bicker and joust with William Shatner in the great TV series “Boston Legal”.
James Horner’s score is a continuation of his work on “The Wrath Of Khan” and he brings in new themes to complement those carried over from the previous film. Again, the grand Star Trek tradition of reusing and recycling is apparent again, from the footage from previous films at the start of the movie to the bulk of the costumes and sets being redressed again and again but it still feels shiny and new.
Again, the film ends on a cliff-hanger but one sweetened by a touching scene of reconnection between the revivifiedSpock and his friends. It leaves our heroes on Vulcan, effectively on the run from Starfleet and in a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey. When I first saw this movie, I was convinced that the next film would see Kirk in command of the Excelsior, but that wasn’t the way the trilogy would round out. It’s a decent entry in the franchise but it doesn’t carry any real weight due to a lack of any dramatic tension and the inevitability of its resurrectionary ending. Without the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of Kirk’s son, it would be very ordinary indeed.